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Like peas in a pod

Criminal Records owner buys Aurora Coffee

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It was almost 15 years ago that Eric Levin opened Criminal Records in Little Five Points. Impoverished and completely motivated by his passion for alternative culture, Eric often slept on the floor of his tiny shop, which eventually became quite successful and moved to its present location on Moreland Avenue.

It was about 13 years ago that Betsy Buckley of Seattle and her brother, Booth, came to Atlanta and gave the city its first good taste of coffee by opening Aurora Coffee in Virginia-Highland. Although Starbucks soon invaded the city with its cozy decors and coffee-spiked milk shakes, nobody who is serious about coffee questions the superiority of Aurora's drinks.

Then, just after Eric moved Criminal to its present location (466 Moreland Ave., 404-215-9511), he convinced Betsy to open an Aurora next door (468 Moreland Ave., 404-523-6856). "Hey," he says, "we were both alternatives to corporate culture. It seemed completely right."

Now, nearly a decade later, Eric has bought the Aurora coffee shops and is mulling how far to go in blending his two businesses. He considered but decided against removing the wall between the shops on Moreland to basically create a coffee bar inside Criminal Records, which, besides selling the city's best selection of alternative music (new and used), probably has the best alternative magazine rack. The shop hosts regular performances by bands and spoken-word artists, making it Atlanta's best commercial venue for alternative culture.

The use of those two words together -- "commercial" and "alternative" -- has been an ongoing issue in the Little Five Points community. Several years ago, residents organized to protest the location of a corporate pharmacy there. "But," says Eric, "that was just delaying the inevitable. Now there's a Starbucks nearly next door and there are four more down Moreland." He points south, in the direction of a huge shopping center that includes a Lowe's, a Target and a Best Buy. "We can't keep them out, but we can provide an alternative."

But the painful truth is that much of what passes for raw alternative culture just isn't agreeable to a lot of people. Although I'm personally not fond of Starbucks coffee at all, I hang out and do a lot of my writing at the Ansley location. "Oh, I understand that," Eric says, "There's Wi-Fi, there's comfortable furniture, a lot of people like the 'flavored drinks.' You can use a credit card." Exactly.

Indeed, Aurora -- especially the Little Five Points location and the now-closed shop on Piedmont at Monroe -- has not been comfortable for hanging out. "They were never designed for that," Eric says. "They are really more like kiosks. You stop by and pick up a really good drink." 

OK, but does the L5P shop have to be furnished with cold steel furniture that looks more appropriate to a piercing studio? Does the bar have to remind me of the light tables in newspaper press rooms?

"No, and I agree that it's awful," Eric says. "I haven't decided how much we're going to change the look. I did decide that it's important for Aurora to retain its own identity. So, while I'll be moving some CDs and magazines into both shops, I'm not going to completely blend the identities. But I'm adding Wi-Fi and you'll be able to use a credit card soon. I guess you could call these concessions to corporate culture, but I think they are ordinary conveniences people expect now."

What about taste? Eric is a longtime foodie and in fact wrote dining reviews for his own publication for a while. "I don't think anyone can argue that the pastries that Starbucks sells aren't very good," he says. Eric is being kind. Some of them, like the croissant, are abominations. The only thing I can eat there and enjoy is the oatmeal cookie, which is still way too sweet. My favorite, the Rice Krispy Treat, was eliminated more than a year ago.

"I intend to go out of my way to make sure we have the city's best pastries," Eric says. "We've already got stuff from the Bread Garden. The problem is that there's very little in the case except a few bagels after the morning rush. So, while I don't intend to get into sandwiches, I do plan to have a much bigger selection from the city's best bakeries and specialty-foods shops."

And what about flavored coffee drinks and those milk shake-like drinks, "Frappuccinos," that are as calorific as cake blended in a glass? Eric shifts in his chair. "Well, I don't like those, but we are going to experiment with expanding the drink menu. We'll be adding some flavors and seeing what else we can offer. The demand is definitely there," he says. "I mean, a lot of people don't approve of using soy milk in a latte, but, being a vegetarian, I think it's the right choice -- so much so that I'm not going to charge extra for it anymore."

He's also planning to expand the tea menu. When Teaspace, the tiny Japanese boutique restaurant on Euclid Avenue, closed, he bought the restaurant's furnishings and tea inventory. "We'll be adding bubble teas, for sure," Eric says.

One thing that won't change is the quality of the barista service at Aurora. They are all required to go through training at Batdorf and Bronson, the roaster that the original Aurora owners helped establish here. After the quality of the coffee beans itself, very little makes as much difference in a drink as the skill of the barista. While many of the Starbucks now use automated machines that compensate quite well for poor skills, the artistry of trained and practiced baristas is part of the éclat of coffee culture.

Indeed, most of Aurora's baristas are part-timers whose usual work is in alternative culture -- musicians, artists, writers, students. "That," Eric says, "adds to the sense of Aurora being a place people come to learn something about coffee and to indulge their taste for life outside the corporate mainstream with all its mediocrity and dumbing-down of the population. The last thing I want is a dummy behind the bar."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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